by Magdalin M. Szabo

Although still a preschooler, I was aware that something was amiss. It was a daily struggle to obtain food. Lights were turned off earlier in the evening to save electricity. My parents spoke only in hushed tones and as never before looked out the window to check if someone loitering there might overhear them. An ever-increasing struggle with daily life and survival was wearing my parents down. Having left our war-torn town in Croatia (formerly Yugoslavia), within two years we were again facing the fear of persecution by the communists coming to power now in Hungary. Stories of entire families detained, deported, tortured and disappearing were buzzing all around town, frightening the population. We were painfully aware that events beyond our control would shape our lives.

The grownups talked of things hard for me to understand: ethnic problems, how the war had ravaged our area, how the communists, promising liberation, had actually and systematically destroyed everything. Friends, neighbors, even family members were turning against one another, and those who had houses, businesses and land were now considered class enemies: the bourgeois, not to be trusted.

Magdalin at age 3, 1943. Birthday picture

How could I understand when even the adults in the family could not comprehend why the communists’ plan called for the destruction of the bourgeois class and confiscation of their properties? What the grownups did understand, though, was that we must leave. Leave behind our homes, our businesses, and our heritage, not looking back and probably not ever coming back.

The date of our departure from Hungary was set, and in the hushed calm of the night we slipped away with the few items we could safely carry, so as not to create suspicion in anyone we might meet along the way. Friends stood in their dark doorways, too grief-stricken to speak or bid us a safe journey. Even their crying was kept to discreet sniffles, muffled, lest someone from the street hear and be alerted as to what was happening. Only by the glow of the moonlight could I see the agony on my parents’ faces, their streams of tears, as they looked back probably for the last time. They all knew there would be no exchange of letters, no communication as to our whereabouts, for quite a while. It would be dangerous.

We walked most of the night through farm fields, staying off the main roadways that were being patrolled. It was mild for January, but the ground was still frozen in open areas. We tried not to walk in the open areas, but rather around the edges of the fields where the trees were. Although the foliage was absent, there were more shadows there to hide us. Open fields were to be avoided. After walking for a while, I became tired and asked to be carried. I realized there was something very important about this trip and that I must also bear the hardship. So, after being carried for a distance, I asked to walk again, and dutifully carried my own small suitcase.

As the first glow of dawn appeared on the horizon, we quickly headed for a nearby barn, there to hide during the harsh light of day. My father made a bed of hay for us in the loft and the three of us huddled under a coarse blanket used to cover horses. I felt warm and secure between my parents and soon fell asleep.

We had not slept long when we heard the clanking of pails and the creaking of the barn door opening on its rusty hinges. From the loft my father began to speak to the farmer and his wife. Softly, respectfully, a little fearfully, he let them know his wife and child were there with him. They immediately understood the reason for their unexpected visitors’ presence, and said that we were not the first, and probably not the last, to use their meager accommodations. After they milked their cows and let the livestock out for the day, they brought us a big basket filled with warm bread, butter and honey, hardboiled eggs and fresh warm milk. They told us their son and his family had left four weeks ago, headed for the Austrian border, hoping for freedom. They vowed to help us and to help anyone who came along, with the hope that somewhere, someone was offering the same help and kindness to their son. We spent the day in the barn, where my parents studied a well-worn map, planning our next night’s trip. I was happily watching and petting the newborn calf, and helping the farmer’s wife collect the chickens’ eggs.

As the shadows grew long, the farmer and his wife appeared, she with a sack of food, he with a piece of paper. He had drawn some lines indicating how we were to get to his brother’s farm 15 miles away. There we could take refuge for the next night. He took out his pocket knife and sharpened the tip of his pencil, which he then handed to my father. He pointed to the lines and dictated the names of the roads, describing in detail the markers along the way, and where the patrols were stationed. He made no apology for not ever learning to write. He did not need to.

Darkness, the daily welcome visitor, again arrived, enveloping us in her safe, velvety cloak, readying us for continuing our journey. We walked along the edges of the forests, going in a little deeper when we spotted patrols, or when it was time to eat or rest. It was after a short rest period that we were awakened by a young man, dressed in uniform, with the moonlight verifying the outline of a gun in his hands.

Paternal Grandparents, Katalin and Francis Gerstmayer, their wedding picture, 1903.

After the young man was assured that we had no weapons, he told us that he too was on the run, having defected a few days ago from the Yugoslav army. He said he would join us in our journey to the border. We shared what little food we had, because he said he had not eaten for days.

Miloš was a good guide, a farm boy who found an even better route to our next evening’s hideout. We found the farm easily with the prepared map and quickly took up residence in this barn as the golden-pink glow rounded the not-so-distant hills of Austria. To our surprise, we found two other families huddled under tarps and blankets in the loft. The women panicked and let out little shrieks when they saw the uniformed, armed man in our midst, but settled down after it was explained he was a friend and now our guide. Within the hour, three more families arrived. The farmer’s young teenage son came to ask if the newcomers needed food or water. When he returned from the house with a feast of smoked ham, bread, apple cider and dried fruits, he told us how he spent many of his waking hours now in the barn tending to the needs of the refugees on their way to freedom, and acting as a lookout. He also brought a change of clothes for Miloš, our newly-appointed guide. In the barn Miloš found a sack to carry his gun in, so it would not be spotted by others along the route to the border. He insisted we should not move that night, but stay the night in that barn, because we needed rest. He wanted to be sure that everyone would have the strength and energy required for the next night when we were to reach the border.

My mother’s parents Terezia and John Pfaff, 1924, in Batina

Night fell and the children became quiet. We understood that to converse, laugh, or make noise was dangerous. We slept the sleep of innocence, bellies filled, comfortable in our mothers’ arms. The drone of the hushed tones of the men, talking about the situation in the country and their plans for the future, served as our lullaby.

A rooster loudly welcomed the sun which now pierced its way through the barn’s siding, and dust danced everywhere in narrow rays. The hayloft came alive with sparks of gold. The children were awakening and automatically put their fingers to their lips to show their parents they had not forgotten about not making a sound. Everyone, even the smallest child, learned quickly that silence was important, because we were now about five miles from the heavily patrolled border. The farmer and his son were already out sawing and splitting logs, close to the barn so they could give a warning if soldiers came near. A quick wash in a basin of cold water, set there by the farmer’s son, shocked us back to full wakefulness. We ate in silence; then the grownups packed up our belongings. Miloš insisted on resting some more in the afternoon to be ready for the dangerous journey that night to the border.

As the indigo clouds settled in the distance  and the birds nestled for the night, we stealthily filed out of the barn. The farmer’s wife stood in the shadow of the corn shed and handed each family a muslin sack filled with food she had prepared for our journey. The men were each given a goatskin flask filled with milk for the children. She spoke softly as she affirmed their insistence on helping the refugees in their flight to freedom, even though it put them in harm’s way. They knew, she said, that if their help was discovered, they could be in serious trouble, could even be shot. Yet they took a chance, doing what they believed in.

We were in luck, because the night was dark, moonless; overcast with low, mottled, dove-grey, angry-looking clouds threatening to burst with snow. The clouds helped our cover. A cold, cruel wind tugged at our clothes and at the clouds. Whirling, soft snow stuck to the fronts of our coats. The snow also stuck to our brows and eyelashes but melted quickly on our weary, travel-worn faces. As we inched closer to the border, tears of sorrow and weariness were shed for family, friends, and the  lives we were leaving behind. Miloš, with his gun readied in the sack, went up ahead some distance while the men walked behind the crowd of women and children, so that if someone fell or needed help they could be quickly picked up and carried. We approached an open area with no trees or buildings to hide us. The ground was frozen hard, mostly covered with snow, with corn stalks here and there standing forgotten and frozen, bent in the wind. These were to be avoided; the guards might hear the sound of their snapping. Miloš, after scouting the area, came back to say we would have to wait in the wooded area until past midnight. He knew the routine of the border guards: By midnight they would drink enough wine to put them into a heavy sleep. So for almost three hours we all huddled together as closely as possible, with the smallest children in the middle. We patted each other on the back or arms to keep warm until our guide motioned to us that it was time to go. He cautioned us: no talking, no crying, no sneezing, and to walk carefully so as not to trip. There was to be no noise of any kind.

We had to pass by the outpost of a row of barracks before we got to the border. We held our breaths and crept across the bare field, bending forward against the blowing snow. We made it past the barracks where the guards slept and into a pine-wooded area. Much to our surprise, in this wooded stretch just before the border we saw many tiny red flickering lights, like tiny pinpricks. They were the glowing cigarettes of men waiting there for people like us who had made it to the border’s barbed-wire fence.

These were the hyenas, the unscrupulous, preying on people needing safe guidance through the border. Most had formed an unholy alliance with the border guards, splitting the so-called “crossing fees” with them. Our guide had told us stories about these men promising refugees a safe night of rest at an undisclosed place before leading them across, only to take them to a secluded place where their cohorts stripped and murdered them. Miloš had kept his promise to lead us safely to the border. Now he said everyone was to be on their own. They could take their chances by entering into an agreement with a so-called border crossing guide for a fee (clothing or jewelry) with no guarantees, or they could try to cross the border on their own.

Good-byes and blessings were hurriedly and softly spoken as families began interviewing and hiring someone to lead them across the border. The other choice was to painstakingly walk along the borderline, carefully avoiding the floodlit areas, then decide on a place and time to cross without a guide. My father opted to strike a deal with Miloš as our guide. My father convinced him that together they would study the border for a while and check where the floodlights were. He promised to make it worth his while somehow. They all knew that money at that time was worth nothing. Some other reward would have to be given.

Paternal grandparent’s home in the village of Batina

The young man became visibly fearful of this challenge. He started to sweat and pulled his cap off. His hands shook as he accused my father of pressuring him to be in charge of a family’s safety. He was agitated and trembling, fighting with his thoughts,  but then accepted this test as his destiny. He readied us for the crossing, saying we would cross about two hours before daybreak, at the darkest time of the night. It would take more than an hour to get through. Meanwhile he and my father would use the time until then to watch what routes others were taking. He did not want to hurry. He told us that after we reached the other side, the Austrians would take care of us. We would no longer need him.

All packages and suitcases, he said, must be left behind. Extra clothing under our coats, which might hinder us, was to be removed. Only extra gloves and scarves could be taken. White or light-colored clothes were to be discarded, replaced by dark items. Scarves were to be wrapped and tied around our knees and elbows. My father removed his pocket knife from his sock and helped tear the gun’s sack into ribbon-like shreds. These were used to tie the gun onto the back of our guide. Both men kept their pocket knives ready in case someone’s clothing got caught in the barbed-wire fence. Miloš got on the ground and showed us the proper way to crawl, shifting the weight and pressure from one side of the body to the other, meanwhile keeping the head low. We practiced for some time until he was satisfied that we were doing it correctly. He would be up ahead and we were to watch him at all times. If at any time he raised his hand, it meant we were to lie flat, face to the side, resting it on a forearm. Milos then dug into the ground with his knife, produced a handful of dirt, mixed it with a little snow, made us close our eyes and rubbed our faces with it. During our crawl, he said, the searchlights should not be able to reflect light from us. We were to crawl little by little, and always rest beside a felled tree or hay clump, never in the open.

We were now ready for the slow crawl to freedom.

For almost an hour we crawled on our bellies, soaked with the muddy snow. We proceeded more slowly than anticipated. It was hard to decide which ache was worse: the ache in our knees, our shoulders, or our elbows. Miloš held up his hand and pointed ahead. Not too far away we saw the fences, four of them in parallel rows, with wires strung from post to post covered with sharply cruel barbed wire. The four fences in parallel rows were about six feet apart. We would have to crawl not only successfully under one fence, but three more! Milos told us that he and my father would go first and look for an area in the fence where the barbed wire was higher off the ground. If need be, some of the dirt might have to be dug away to give safe passage under the barbed wire. The fences ran the full length of the border, about five miles, but most of the floodlights were around the main patrol barracks. This particular area where we were to cross was closest to the Austrian Red Cross camp for refugees and hence picked by Miloš for our crossing.

Monument erected by Russia in village of Batina (1947)

Miloš and my father timed the floodlights. They lit up our particular path once every 11 minutes, but only the area where the first two fence lines were. The other two beyond, the floodlights never reached.

Miloš gave the sign to be ready for the crawl to the first fence. As we progressed through the second fence, my mother’s coat got tangled in the bottom rung of the barbed wire, but it was immediately cut loose, with a good chunk of the material left dangling behind. As we continued, other chunks of material could be observed here and there, retained by the spikes, waving merrily in the wind, bearing witness to the successful pursuit of  freedom.

The border patrols had recently been set up so there had been no time yet to lay land mines nor to have dogs patrolling the border, otherwise the crossing would not have been possible. We managed to patiently negotiate these barbed wire fences because winter was on the refugees’ side. Not many border guards fancied being out in the cold for too long. Many guards even looked the other way as long as the “crossing fees” were split with them. The guards also knew that even if fleeing refugees were caught  it was inconvenient to detain them because there were no facilities for them, and shooting the people was not yet an option for many. My father knew that soon the commanders would become aware of the many refugees crossing the border, that more strict patrol guards would be positioned there, land mines would be laid, and dogs would help patrol the area. This is why we had to flee across the border while we still could.

We passed through the third fence as the floodlights were coming round, and our guide motioned for us to stop and lie still, even though the lights were not set to reach the third line of fences. After the fourth fence only a deep muddy trench remained, and when we crawled up the other side we would be in the safety zone. The trench was at least eight feet deep, dark, and after we were  inside our guide insisted that we rest there within the trench to gain some strength. Dawn was creeping into the trench and lit up rows and rows of small hollowed-out footholds, painstakingly dug there by those who had gone before us. Our guide climbed up first, removed his jacket and tied it to a rope from his backpack, and used that to help hoist us up. I was hoisted up first, then my mother and father followed. Up on the other side, looking into the valley, we saw the welcoming lights of the Austrian border camp. We heard music. We could smell food cooking. Needless to say, our limbs gathered new strength as we ran for safety. The Austrians welcomed us with open arms. An army nurse picked me up, hugged me tightly, and kissed my muddy tear-streaked cheeks.

In the barracks we were able to clean up with warm water. Our wounds were dressed, we ate a wonderful meal of sausage and cabbage, then were tucked in between clean, warm comforters by friendly nurses. We were the last ones to come through that dawn. I was too excited to sleep. Holding my teddy-bear gift tightly, I looked around at the many others in the room and happily noted that there were many children I would be able to play with the next day.

After the lights went out in our barracks, I saw in the dimness my mother sit up in her bed and carefully rip open a seam in the lining of her coat. She took out something wrapped in a wet, soiled hankie. She went over to the young man who had heroically led us to safety. She placed this into Miloš’s hand and thanked him, saying it was all she had to give him, but she hoped it would help him get started in his new life. The young farm boy was stunned. He had never seen such beauty—the gold bracelet glowing with an ardent intensity, the luminous emeralds symbolizing the hope of the future.

The trust, support and cooperation between the young man and a family whom he had helped to safety with his courage and determination would sustain them as they started their new life.

Magdalin M Szabo

Magdalin M. Szabo was born on August 10, 1940 in Batina, Yugoslavia (formerly Hungary). In 1944, she emigrated as a young child with her parents from Yugoslavia to Canada.  Her husband, Barna, left Hungary with his university classmates, following the failed revolution in 1956 and emigrated to Canada

Magdalin and her husband met at the University of Toronto, later settled in Ontario and had two sons, prior to moving to St. Louis, Missouri, at the invitation of Washington University. Shadows at Dawn, the last story in her book, Life, Love, and Loss: Short Stories and Poems Based on True Events, refers to her dear first born, Mark, who passed away in February, 2015. The book is dedicated to him. He lived in England with his wife Leticia, an artist. Mark was the Director of Special Education at the TASIS school, where Leticia was the art teacher. Mark was a very loved teacher, and his untimely death, a heart attack, was a shock to many. They had no children. Her younger son, Nicholas, lives with his wife Maria and their two children, Sophia and Peter, in Colorado Springs. Nicholas is working on his PhD in Theology. Sophia just finished her first year at U. of Colorado, Peter is still in high school.

Magdalin’s business career spans over 50 years. She retired from her position as Administrative Officer at Washington University in St. Louis, and serves as Treasurer of ESRD, Inc. She lives in Chesterfield, Missouri with her husband.